Fall 2017–Winter 2018

What Does the Melancholic Know?

Agonizing attention

Brian Dillon

Housewives notice that they cannot follow a recipe; card players cannot attend to the game; readers lose their place and have to reread a thing several times.
—Frank J. Ayd, Recognizing the Depressed Patient (1961)


Despairing, then, of describing the emotional pain itself, the depressed person hoped at least to be able to express something of its context—its shape and texture, as it were.
—David Foster Wallace, “The Depressed Person” (1999) 


Melancholia as a mode of knowledge: it seems implausible, even a vulgar denial of the real suffering involved in depression, which is our historical heir to the disorder of the black bile. Of course, one may retroject certain hard-won lessons about oneself and the world by having dwelled in depression’s purgatorial precincts, but can we genuinely say that in the midst of woe we learn anything at all, or that the pain is itself a kind of dolorous episteme? Consider our writers’ metaphors for the state of the depressive mind: Sylvia Plath’s bell jar, William Styron’s bad psychic weather, Wallace’s at once nameless and aptly named Bad Thing. None of them suggests a cognitive or imaginative purchase on things—rather absence, disarray, and the collapse of language.


And yet a venerable tradition among physicians, philosophers, and poets long insisted on a relation between knowledge and melancholia. Aristotle (or one of his followers) famously has it that melancholia affects “all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts.” The fifteenth-century Italian Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino avers that “of all learned people, those especially are oppressed by black bile, who, being sedulously devoted to the study of philosophy, recall their mind from the body and corporeal things.” The church fathers of the Middle Ages had been more precise, and admonishingly pictured the melancholic in his cell or cloister, afflicted by the monkish curse of acedia, shuttling between torpor and excessive animation. His disease, it seems, affects the capacity for concentration; the scholar or copyist leaps up time and again from his work, attention drawn by the slightest disturbance or daydream.


The problem, as Robert Burton would later elaborate it, is not that the melancholic’s attention is diverted from the world into a state of doleful reverie—or not only that. (Burton agreed with earlier writers that melancholia was a scholar’s malady, and repeated the assertion that it had a digestive locus: it may be caused, he surmised, by leaning the belly for too long on large books.) The sufferer is as likely to become super-alert, his mind charged by a thousand topics at once, like “a ranging spaniel that barks at every bird he sees, leaving his game.” In fact, this is Burton’s own affliction; his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) tries to say all there is to say about the illness in question, and then everything there is to know about everything else. Burton revised his treatise for twenty years; he simply could not stop adding causes, symptoms, cures, anecdotes, and wildly erudite conjectures. He wrote to cure his own melancholia, but produced a model for melancholic suspension between concentration and distraction.


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